Betsy, Betsy Quite Contrary, how does your garden grow? Sing song with me: “Insert your name) (Insert your name) Quite Contrary, how does your garden grow?” Ask me in June, and it flourishes with hope and imagination and it is a veritable garden of Eden, neatly planted all in a row.
Stick around and ask me again in August. By then hope, foolishness and imagination have been tempered by the sun, the rain (or lack of it), and weeds. The rows are seldom as neat by August.
The creative optimist must learn to adapt to reality early in life or else be defeated by it. Then learn again. And learn some more. Family members of our Tribe (the Creative Optimists) inscribe our tombstones with “Another of God’s Unfinished Projects.” We could never pre-plan our own funerals and engrave our own tombstones because we can’t believe we’ll die with all these unfinished projects and ideas on our hands. I don’t know how to be anything else. I deal with disappointments and weeds in the garden by my commitment to process. That is, on a good day that’s how I do it. If one is going to imagine a different future, one has to be willing to reconcile hope and outcomes on a frequent basis. Error is part of trial. Trial is part of process. Commitment to process is either durable hope or the folly of wishful thinking. Or both.
This is what it is like to be part of this Tribe. Picture this, if you can think in pictures. I pick out some bulbs from an open bin at the gardening store, imagining how beautiful they will look in my garden. I plant them in the spot where I imagine they will be perfectly happy to grow. I notice with satisfaction when the first bit of green protrudes from the ground. I check back at least every day, my satisfaction deepening and excitement fuels my hope. With curiosity Jim points out the interesting shape and color of the leaves. I have to admit this does not look like the plant I expected. At first I wonder if a squirrel has planted this one, and my bulb did not grow at all. The plant grows tall. The bulb I chose was supposed to grow into a short, shrubby plant. This gangly plant grows in entirely the wrong place in the garden to blend well with the other plants, and it overshadows the sweet little plants at the border. This plant doesn’t bloom at all. It’s an elephant planted among little plants, who soon croak from the lack of sun and water under the giant’s leaves. THIS is not the plant I imagined when I picked that bulb out of the open box for 30% off. This plant is indeed an elephant. An elephant ear plant. It is beautiful, but mislocated. I continue to tend to it for this year, but plan to relocate it next year.
This is what life as a creative optimist looks like. Over and over again.
After a half century of this life, I finally understand how irritating this is for the linear thinkers in my world. They scratch their heads and wonder why it didn’t occur to me to just pull out the miscreant elephant or relocate it this year. They wonder when I will ever learn. Or ask why I don’t just give up planting a garden or buying things out of the clearance section. That might be logical, but it’s not native thinking for me. I’m grateful for the linear thinkers in my world. Some of them are just what I need to harness my runaway creativity and optimism to realistic goals and make them happen. Sometimes, however, I’m led deep into the dark side of being a creative optimist. It doesn’t work, this thing I hoped for. I keep trying again and again, persisting beyond what is reasonable or practical. When I give up, it is indeed a dark and gloomy day. The wise linear rational person will not choose this moment to tell me “I told you so.” Because I am what I am, I will pick myself up eventually and start again. Maybe I will look at the problems of the first time around and see new solutions out of what I have learned. That is what will turn into a good day…tomorrow. Sometimes, as I described in a previous post, I will chuck it all into The Closet, literally and spiritually.
Jesus tells us a story this week, and it’s a golden favorite of Sunday School teachers
and Preachers alike. God sows the seed. Birds peck at it. Weeds choke it. Sun scorches it. Then a little bit of it falls on good soil and it takes off like crazy and grows into a Mighty Tree that feeds the whole world. Go in peace, find good dirt and plant yourself in it. Thanks be to God.
So this is how we tell our kids to choose good friends in the right crowd and stay away from all the bad seeds. This is how we evaluate the success of the gardens that are our lives, and congratulate ourselves for our neat rows in August…or sink into defeat because we just can’t seem to grow anything in our lives and are pecked to death by ducks (and ravens and all kind of hungry birds.)
I confess, this was one of my favorite texts when I was in youth ministry. It was great fun to assign kids to each of the roles-farmer, good seed, sun, dirt, ravens–and watch what grew from their imaginations. Kids who got to be ravens usually got into the part of carrying away the seeds with zeal. Too much zeal.
I suggest a different name and a different reading. In my life, it is no longer spring. Maybe it’s August now. (Definitely hope it’s not December!) Creative Optimists always carry a little Spring in their handbags though. If you have ever seen a
persistent little flower grow through a small crack in the sidewalk or your driveway, you know some of the difficulty of reading this little parable and looking up and admonishing someone to go be good seed. I have known too many good people who grew from troubled and difficult soil into strong and amazing children and adults. I have also known too many privileged and gifted people who seem to have been planted in the best of soils with every benefit, only to be carried away by ravens and scorched by the noonday sun or their tanning beds. When we read this as a cautionary tale to incite good behavior, we read it from a position of privilege. I’m going to rock that boat a bit, or even get out of it altogether.
What is a position of privilege? It’s the set of assumptions we can make about the world around us because we have something others don’t have. There’s economic privilege, political and geographic privilege, gender privilege, racial privilege, privilege of age or youth, physical strength, neurotypical cognitive function, attractiveness, and the list goes on forever. We arrange ourselves according to our positions of privilege in relationship to those who do not share our privilege, and then we can create our assumptions that explain why we enjoy this position of privilege and others don’t. That’s why I call it a position of privilege. It comes as a soul shaking surprise to discover that those whom we have pitied most for their lack of whatever privilege we enjoy actually do not want the burdens of our privilege and see us as the ones who do not enjoy the privileges they have. When we define others in terms of what they are not and ourselves in terms of what we have that is preferable we create positions of privilege for ourselves. That is when the ravens arrive to carry us away.
Ravens? What ravens? I didn’t see any ravens, did you?
Reading the story as The Parable of the Seeds (that would be us, the good ones, don’tcha know?) from a position of privilege almost always lands us over there in the good dirt explaining all that is evil in the world found in the dirt somewhere else. Be careful how you walk. Good dirt is made up of decaying dead things and shit.
So here goes my alternative offering: the parable isn’t about us. Not really. It’s about God. It’s about us only because the only way we can talk about God is in relationship to ourselves because God chooses to be known in relationship to what God loves and creates. The Parable of the Sower isn’t about the success of the seeds. The Parable of the Sower isn’t a guide for better gardening. The Parable of the Sower is about the character of the Sower. What does the Sower actually DO in this story? Sow seeds of course. Sowing seeds and more seeds, without seeming to have any regard for best practices, economic yield, or the breeding and pedigree of the seeds. The Sower is prodigious. Spendthrift. The Sower is the consummate Creative Optimist. The sun? The rocky soil? The ravens? The weeds? Shucks. That’s just the world as it is, and I’ve got my head stuck under the soil (probably good soil) if I think my world would never have such things. While my head is stuck in the soil, the ravens are making target practice of my butt stuck in the air. If they miss today, don’t worry–eventually one will hit a bull’s-eye.
When I step aside from reading this story from my own pinnacle of privilege, I allow the story to do its work on me, not just everyone else I think could use a little pruning and weeding. The good news isn’t that I’m lucky to be good soil. The good news is that in the midst of a life where the sun roasts us, the ravens carry us off, the concrete traps us, the weeds strangle us, and people traipse on us–in the midst of this life, God doesn’t give up on us. God keeps sowing, already knowing that most of what is sown is going to fall on hard hearts, lazy bums, deaf ears, and on the margins of the plowed field. It isn’t that God doesn’t know the price of good seed at the feed barn. In fact, quite the contrary. God knows exactly what the seed cost and sows it anyway. Even more….God knows where good dirt comes from.
Dead and decaying things. Last year’s autumn leaves. Shit. Repeat layers of it.
Creative Optimists can fall into the ditch of “No Clue about Reality.” Utilitarian, realist types can fall into the same ditch. One can bury one’s head in the dirt from either position, and neither is the truth without the other.
In this Sower’s garden, the purpose of rows is to assure the seeds that the Sower is at work and all is not chaos. But the seeds cannot congratulate themselves for landing in rows! Behold, dear ones, the Queen Anne’s lace and periwinkle blue chicory weeds growing on the side of the road where road salt in winter, car exhaust, and fierce sun cause them no never mind. Sure, you might see them in other places too. As you drive by, lift your eyes off that cell phone for the smallest second and enjoy their blooms. (Right, you don’t text and drive do you? Please don’t). Take time to notice these flowers and allow them to give you their encouragement.
When we step down from the pinnacle of privilege, we get to enjoy a wider company of friends. Compassion without a trace of pity will run like a cool refreshing stream through your soul. We will not be target practice for ravens or exposed on the rock of our pinnacle to be plucked off and carried away. Everything layered between the decaying offal and shit will become good soil for new and renewed life. Hope will come again. Life will walk out of the tombs.
I’ve been known to allow an ironweed grow in my garden. I love its deep purple flowers in late August and September. I probably have a neighbor or two who think I should have sprayed it with Roundup a long time ago. I have resisted so long that it would require major excavation to destroy its’ sturdy taproot. I didn’t plant it there. Maybe a bird or squirrel did. Just when I think the weeds have taken over the world of my garden, the Ironweed blooms. The Sower takes a break under the Acacia tree, and laughs.
Life, it seems, is an unfinished project. We’re welcome to join the Sower under that tree, share a long draught of cold water, unpack a snack of bread and wine, and then get back to tossing seeds. We might see some ravens threatening to do some target practice, but relax. It washes.